Scarborough nonprofit collects millions of dollars in usable medical supplies thrown out by hospitals

Posted Sept. 02, 2013, at 12:26 p.m.

SCARBOROUGH, Maine — Not far from a bin filled with $25 adhesive bandages, nurse Elizabeth McLellan checked the expiration dates on a number of bags of IV solutions, each one worth about $100 in the American medical supplies market — and as it turns out, each one with a usable lifespan that reaches deep into 2014 or 2015.

Her colleague, Mandy Rodney, hurried by with a newly received $1,500 Doppler ultrasound.

The Scarborough warehouse of the nonprofit Partners for World Health, one of the organization’s five storage sites of various sizes in Maine, is filled to all corners with unopened, unused and sterilized health care supplies. Syringes sealed in packages, linens, soaps and more.

And at the group’s other sites? Almost new operating tables that sell for about $100,000 apiece, along with wheelchairs, crutches and exam tables.

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The word used by one first-time visitor to describe this bounty of potentially life-saving medical supplies? — “Sad.”

“I think it’s pretty powerful,” University of New England third-year physical therapy student Karen Bartling said Friday. “There’s got to be millions of dollars of supplies here, and all of it was just going to be thrown out. It’s kind of sad.”

Partners for World Health is a now four-year-old nonprofit founded by McLellan, who gathers the medical supplies from hospitals across Maine with a promise to sort them and redistribute them to areas of need both domestically and overseas.

This year, Partners for World Health will send six shipping containers of health care supplies, weighing between 30,000 and 40,000 pounds and worth between $250,000 and $500,000 apiece, to places such as Bangladesh, Senegal and Cambodia. McLellan said her organization has enough supplies to ship out at least 12 containers every year, but hasn’t raised enough in donations to make that many shipments.

On Friday, Bartling and six UNE classmates spent the morning helping organize the latest hospital giveaways in exchange for a load of supplies for their own purposes. As part of a school project funded by a grant from the university’s Center for Excellence in Interprofessional Education, the students are launching a 10-week program next month to help recently diagnosed diabetes patients in the area properly monitor their conditions and make healthy lifestyle choices.

There’s a lot of good being done both close to home and in underdeveloped countries by McLellan’s efforts to pull medical supplies out of the waste streams of Maine hospitals — in 2012, for instance, Pen Bay Healthcare in Rockport trumpeted that the organization had donated 3,600 pounds of supplies to Partners for World Health and saved $8,180 in waste disposal costs as a result.

But McLellan said the success of her group is a sign of trouble in its own right: Hospitals across the state, many of which are facing financial difficulties, are buying and throwing away millions of dollars worth of supplies.

Those throwaways come in many different forms, McLellan said. Sometimes nurses bring a couple of backup syringes into a patient’s room, just in case, and leave them there. When the patient leaves, the extra syringes are thrown away along with the used supplies. Other times, hospitals include new furniture in their capital budgets without considering whether the existing furniture needs replacing, she said.

Phone calls seeking comments from the Maine Hospital Association, Eastern Maine Medical Center and Maine Medical Center were not immediately returned.

Those revelations come at a time when health care costs in Maine and America have come under increased scrutiny. Between 1993 and 2009, spending on health care in the state shot up by 214 percent — from $3.6 billion overall to $11.2 billion — and Maine was recently reported to rank fifth in the country in per capita medical spending.

While McLellan acknowledged that the state faces complicated problems on the health care front, including an aging population and insurance changes brought about in part by President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, she said some of the high cost of medical treatment here and across the country can be traced back to the thousands of pounds of usable supplies thrown away each year.

McLellan said she’s putting as much of that waste as she can to good use, but added, holding a syringe still sealed in a plastic package, “If you’re a hospital and can save this and use it in your system, I’ll give it back to you.”

“This is an expense,” she said. “This is one reason why our health care is so expensive. Someone has to take ownership of this at a high level and make changes.

“We have to start think about things differently,” McLellan said. “We’ve got a big problem in this country. A big problem.”

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